A Look at COVID-19 School Closures and Student Access to Food
June 16th, 2020
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close their doors, not only did the necessary safety effort separate teachers from students, but it created a void for millions of students who rely on school-assisted meals. Every day, The National School Lunch Program serves over 30 million children, the School Breakfast Program feeds over 14.7 million children, and the Child and Adult Care Food Program provides meals to yet another 6.1 million students. With school doors closed, many schools across the US work to help students access daily, healthy breakfasts, lunches, and even weekend supplemental meals. Exacerbating the issue of hunger in homes across the nation, as of May 21, nearly 40 million Americans had lost their jobs.
How have communities coped with this overwhelming need, and how are options evolving as traditional school years end and the summer begins? While a variety of private, public, and governmental agencies are standing up to make a difference, what all of them have in common is that they are possible thanks to the selfless generosity of local heroes.
What has been done so far?
Federal and State Meal Waivers and Relief Programs
In the early days of the pandemic, responding to cries from schools and families for support for low-income households feeling the loss of free or subsidized school meals, the federal government approved waivers for states to work with local organizations to provide meals to children in need. The federal government also issued nationwide waivers permitting parents in need to obtain meals from partner organizations. The federal waiver program will expire on June 30, which means unless the government extends funding through the summer months, additional resources, from multiple channels, will be critical.
As the impacts of COVID-19 escalated beyond conservative projections, Congress passed its second relief package, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. It included the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer program (P-EBT), which provides access to food for students who would otherwise qualify for school subsidized meals. As of May 12, nineteen states submitted applications and were approved for funding.
Food Pick-up and Delivery Services
Community organizers are making it safe and easy for young people reliant on school meals to access the food they need. In large cities such as San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Atlanta, and in smaller communities in between, public school systems are facilitating healthy meal pick-ups. In New York City, parents and students were invited to visit any of 460 schools citywide during designated hours to pick up free breakfast, lunch, or dinner during the school week. The City is now is considering extending its free meal program from students to parents as nationwide efforts to recover economically from the COVID-19 pandemic continue to take shape.
While such programs represent a monumental step toward minimizing the risk of hunger during the stay-at-home mandate, some experts caution that they put volunteers and families at risk by requiring them to come into proximity to pick-up food resources. Further compromising the integrity of the emergency meal delivery model, is lost revenue from students who pay full-price for daily meals. According to Education Dive, of the approximately thirty million meals schools provide per day, about eight million are purchased at full price by students whose families do not require subsidized meal programs. With those students not purchasing meals, programs have lost a crucial funding channel.
A letter sent to Congress on April 27, signed by close to forty organizations, asked for $2.6 billion in the next federal relief package to help offset the revenue loss. Says the letter, the “unanticipated loss of revenue has forced programs to tap into fund balances and draw upon lines of credit to sustain their operations.” While such stop-gap measures may enable program sustainment in the interim, a long-term solution is needed until, potentially, the Fall, if schools resume regular operations.
States and the federal government are not the only entities responding to the call to help put meals on the table for low-income households. Non-profit organizations, big brands, and other organizations are creating independent programs and collaborations to address critical areas of food insecurity in high-risk areas. For example, the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty in Waco, Texas, partnered with McLane Global, PepsiCo, and the USDA to create a program that promised to deliver millions of meals to students who attend several designated closed, rural schools. Its Meals-to-You program provides eligible families a Meals-to-You box delivered to their home for each of their students during school closure periods, most of which include ten breakfasts and lunches each.
Food pantries have always played a crucial role in providing food to underserved segments of the community. During the COVID-19 pandemic, pantries across the nation have expanded up their efforts to accommodate children and families struggling without the assistance of weekday school meals. Feeding America is the largest hunger-relief organization in the United States, established the COVID-19 Response Fund to help food banks during the pandemic.
Extending Support for Summer School Meal Programs
With a vaccine or cure to COVID-19 still out of reach, families are asking what their options will be to continue receiving food support during summer months. As of May 12, 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives introduced The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which includes $3 billion to support school nutrition programs and a fifteen percent increase in the maximum Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for families. The bill aims to continue helping families suffering financially as unemployment and food insecurity rates remain at critical levels. With summer camps that often participate in summer meal programs likely not to open this summer, families will continue looking to their school districts for pick-up and delivery meals and other support services.
COVID-19 has impacted every community, at the state, regional, and local level uniquely, making it the responsibility of individual school districts to address the hunger needs of its students and their families. The teachers, school leaders, cafeteria workers, and volunteers who are working tirelessly to cook, prepare, and distribute meals to the millions of families suffering from economic strife must be counted among our heroes of the pandemic. While there are still outstanding questions as to what governmental financial relief funds will be available to schools and other organizations this summer and fall, school leaders should prepare to leverage all available resources to continue providing meals to those in need throughout the summer.
Please share your ideas or links to resources in the comments section below to help other school leaders.